'Company' commands the stage

October 31 2012.By Ed Huyck, City Pages.

Dieter Bierbrauer leads another strong Theater Latte Da production. Dieter Bierbrauer has been a talented presence and voice in Twin Cities musical theater for several years, providing strong turns in numerous shows, from Power Balladz (which he also performed Off Broadway) to Xanadu to several productions with Theatre Latte Da. In Latte Da's Company, Bierbrauer goes to a new level: In his performance as Bobby, he has become a bona fide star.

That moment of realization came near the end of the first act, as Bobby, the perennial fifth wheel to his various married friends, sings "Marry Me a Little," a particularly gorgeous song in a show packed to the gills with classic Stephen Sondheim compositions. Bierbrauer was alone on the Ordway McKnight Theatre stage. He may have been dwarfed by the set, but he commanded every inch of it, not just with his voice but also with a stage presence that says, "This place is mine."

That uncovers an interesting dynamic in Company, the musical that cemented Sondheim's reputation when it premiered in 1970. On one level it is an ensemble piece, with up to 14 actors sharing not just the stage but the melodies. On the other, it is Bobby's show. He's the lens through which we watch all of the relationships play out, with his inability to commit being the closest thing to an overarching plot the show — built on a series of one-act plays written by George Furth — has to hang its hat on.

So that's about it, plot-wise. In a few moments at his birthday, Bobby reflects back on the relationships of the five couples present and his own with a trio of girlfriends. The scenes peck away at the ups and downs of relationships, probing into what brings people together, drives them apart, and makes them into couples.

Bierbrauer is the glue that keeps the show together, both in song (his other solo numbers, especially the closing "Being Alive," are excellent) and in character. The rest of the cast comes with a mixture of experience, which mostly works well in this production. Director Peter Rothstein has worked hard with the actors to craft distinct characters and voices for each one, while keeping (with music director Jerry Rubino) the necessary vocal unity to prevent ensemble pieces like the act openers ("Company" and "Side by Side by Side") from collapsing into a sonic mess.

Several other performers stand out. "The Ladies Who Lunch" was built for a performer like Jody Briskey, who channels all of her inner Elaine Stritch for the song. Her character is every bit as bitter as previous interpretations, but Briskey brings a little extra soul that gives her lessons to Bobby extra depth and importance, adding strength to the character's eventual breakthrough. At the other end of the experience spectrum, Suzy Kohane takes on the insanely difficult patter of "Getting Married Today" with nary a misstep.

While the acting was strong from beginning to end, a few bum notes were scattered through the vocal performances. The singers and the four-piece orchestra were also overamped for the McKnight space, sometimes muffling the lyrics. Those are pretty minor quibbles, however, as Company proves to be another winner from Theatre Latte Da, and a sign that a major stage presence has arrived.

Company | Latte Da's Sondheim production hums, thanks to a standout lead performance.